For AP, Olympics are the Olympics of news coverage

The Associated Press announced its 2012 Olympics coverage plan Thursday, and as you might expect it’s expansive: text packages and updates posted throughout the day, medal counts on its AP Mobile apps, interactive presentations viewable on a number of devices, and tons of photos and video.

The coverage shows the growing importance of sports coverage to the AP and its belief that sports are not just games that happen on a field, but events that tie together millions of disparate people and overlap with geopolitics, entertainment and culture.

The Olympics already has those elements. Thursday morning, for instance, the International Olympic Committee announced that Saudi Arabia will send two female athletes to the games for the first time.

“There is a recognition that sports touch everyone and there is revenue to be earned,” said Lou Ferrara, AP’s managing editor for sports, entertainment and interactive.

The AP isn’t the only news outlet to exploit the seemingly endless appetite for sports news. Gannett has put all of its sports coverage into a single “super vertical” — USA Today Sports Media Group — that includes USA Today, US Presswire, its community newspapers and television stations. It also recently created a digital group for its various online sports properties.

But the AP’s approach is an interesting contrast to the narrow, deep trend of online sports coverage, which trades in micro-news, commentary and inside information aimed at diehard fans who will vacuum up everything in sight.

In May, then-CEO Tom Curley gave a speech calling on news organizations to capitalize in the growing worldwide interest in sports.

Embrace sport and its role in global society. … In too many shops, the sports team is isolated. Sports today is the boom business, and it deserves to be treated as such. Give them the resources and new product development support they need to grow. Don’t leave all the fun of innovation to startups. The U.S. networks are showing some leadership here with NBCU and soon Fox responding to the ESPN phenomenon. There are hundreds more opportunities being created these days.

In coordination with his speech, AP’s corporate communications office released a video highlighting the growing international importance of sports. “Sports are big business,” it declared, bolstered by a raft of figures.

The video noted that more than 4.7 billion people watched some part of the Beijing Olympics, and that figure is expected to be higher with the proliferation of mobile devices since then. (The iPhone 3G was just a month old during the Beijing Olympics.)

The global market is the largest reason for the AP’s focus on sports, Ferrara said. About one-third of the AP’s revenue comes from outside the U.S., said AP spokesman Paul Colford. The overall trend is stable, “with growth in Asia and Latin America especially strong.”

The AP’s approach has not been to increase its sports staff, Ferrara said by email.

Instead, we have refocused our energies on sports as a subject that goes far beyond the playing field, pulling in staff from across the AP, when necessary, to cover sports in all of its dimensions. For instance, today’s Penn State report is arguably one of the top stories in the world — one of the most searched topics last year. Tiger Woods and other athletes transcend the sports pages, as do the tales that will play out in Russia and Brazil in relation to their Olympics and World Cups. The recent protests in Bahrain ended up intersecting with a large Formula 1 race, and the government denied some journalists entry into the country.

All of these stories are about sports, but they’re also about general news, and staffers across the AP have contributed to a quality of coverage unmatched by others. It’s pretty clear that for anyone involved in sports coverage that we need to look well beyond what happens on the track, the field or the pitch.

It’s interesting that as the AP is emphasizing its coverage, it’s not sending as many people to the games. This year the news outlet has 227 people credentialed for the Olympics, Ferrara said, which is 11 percent smaller than its team in 2008. That’s partly due to the fact that the AP already has a larger staff in London. But it’s also because more of its interactive and graphics staff can work remotely.

Ferrara said they’ll evaluate staffing as they prepare for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, 18 months after the closing ceremonies in London.

Related: NBC News makes Facebook the preferred “second screen” for the television broadcast (TechCrunch) | Could London’s drizzle influence journalists to write negative stories during the Olympics? (Phys.org) | How the Olympics and Twitter will influence each other (Grow) | USA Today to rely on US Presswire photographers for Olympics coverage (JimRomenesko.com)

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